Dystopian Literature. Plagiarism or Conscious Imitation?
They evoke questions. They give mind-bending answers.
An attentive reader, have you ever noticed the similarities between these books?
“We” by Yevgeny Zamyatin
“Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley
“Anthem” by Ayn Rand
“1984” by George Orwell
“Player Piano” by Kurt Vonnegut
“The Dispossessed” by Ursula K. Le Guin
Could Dystopian Fiction Authors Implicitly Cooperate?
Dystopian fiction. We absorb such books with astonishment, they turn our worlds upside down because they are able to foresee the most shocking scenarios of the human race development and ghastly transformation of the Earth in the future. Of course, science fiction is often full of intentionally exaggerated elements but they tend to reflect both our past and present, as well as to anticipate the indispensable changes of tomorrow. Certain events and the general atmosphere of the fictional future are grotesque incarnations of totalitarian regimes of the past as well as allusions to the inevitable things that are about to happen to our ecology, general thinking, and values. After reading these books, we sigh and hope that we will never become witnesses and instigators of those grim plots.
What is your favorite dystopian novel? I can guess that the majority of readers will answer “1984” or “Brave New World”, but I have a surprising fact for some of you: these two cult novels stem from the significant (but, paradoxically, less known) oeuvre “We” by Russian wordsmith Yevgeny Zamyatin. OMG, are Huxley and Orwell plagiarists? If to be extremely fault-finding, you may start accusing these and other authors of plagiarizing Zamyatin. However, before you make your judgments, I invite you to delve into other dystopian books by masterful authors who created fictional worlds that enticingly intersect. I will try to avoid spoilers, so I highly advise you to read all the mentioned pieces of literature: your mind will be profoundly trained!
- The Supposed Origin of the Main Dystopian Prose: “We” by Yevgeny Zamyatin (completed in 1921).
- Where Influences Stem From
This novel tells about the awkward changes that happened to people and Earth in general in the twenty-sixth century. Human beings of this eerie epoch still didn’t manage to triumph over nature, but they decided to insulate themselves from it by building a huge city wall. Here we encounter the first element of dystopia: the rejection of nature within. The inhabitants of this world do not consume healthy organic products: they eat food made of petroleum: yes, like machines. Such a horrific diet reaped its bitter fruits: only 0,2 % of the population was able to survive, though the survivors are claimed to be the strongest, the best ones. These mentally modified humans created the Great One State.
Zamyatin was the first author who focused on the theme of a feigned harmony in a totalitarian state. Describing this absurd world, he rebelliously bid defiance to all the past and future oppressions of human creative freedom and the essential elements of people's moral well-being. The writer was afraid of the upcoming satrapical regimes he basically predicted himself. In the essay "I Am Afraid", published before “We”, he expressed his pain and aversion to any thoroughly fabricated reality that doesn’t give a chance even to breathe in your own way. It’s logical that the despotic regimes, targeted at erasing faces, are fatal for Authors; that’s why he wrote, "True literature can only exist when it is created, not by diligent and reliable officials, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels, and skeptics." His prophetic novel miraculously survived as it was forbidden in Russia. The author was lucky to have friends in America, so his brainchild was published in New York in 1924.
Though the book was written almost hundred years ago, literary researchers still point its relevance in the contemporary world. It’s not merely about a dystopian society, it’s about inner conflicts a modern man also suffers from. Time passes by and people frequently say that we are lucky to live in the state-of-the-art 21st century but, at the same time, we can completely relate to the dark symbolism of science fiction that is not make-believe at all. Alas, the Information Age has made us its loyal slaves: we constantly crave for new technology, we change smartphones as gloves, and we can’t imagine our lives without computers. That’s also sad to realize that we’re becoming strangers with nature and all ecological projects and vegan thinking seem not to make a huge difference. We’re like balancing between happy, healthy, creative and eco-friendly life and awful consumerism, mental degradation, and environmental disasters caused mainly by our deeds…
“We”, the major predecessor of modern dystopia, reveals the essential influences as well, and the main one (surprisingly?) is The Bible. Zamyatin also gave credit to Fyodor Dostoyevsky, specifically his “Notes from Underground”, as well as said he was indebted to “When the Sleeper Wakes” by H. G. Wells.
George Orwell’s “1984” is probably most discussed dystopian novel. It parodies Stalinism and disdains extreme nationalism that makes people blinded by pseudo-great ideas and achievements. Though the depicted reality reminds of the Soviet Union times, Orwell’s version is much worse as there seems to be nothing truly positive: everything is tasteless, unhealthy, both physically and mentally; every human step is followed and censored, every decision is coerced, genuine delight is forbidden, and the truth originates from endless lies. It’s like a reversed “We” written in antonyms.
The English author began writing his masterpiece after reading “We” in French. He even said that he would take this book as “the model for his next novel". Maybe Orwell forgot about these words when asserting that his rival Aldous Huxley was directly inspired by Zamyatin’s work. In his turn, Huxley said that his main influence was Herbert Wells.
In my humble opinion, “Brave New World” is like a magic mirror Zamyatin’s characters look into from the other side. The global societies from both books could be parallel ones, existing in one epoch, adhering to similar ways of life and sharing the same outlooks. If you read Huxley’s masterwork, you may agree with me that this very novel resonates with many aspects of modern life that risk to aggravate in the nearest future. Though we’re not genetically modified, Artificial Intelligence thrives, though we still read books, more and more people forget what old libraries look like, not to mention mass production and consumerism. Well, haven’t we started worshipping machines?...
Yet another dystopian deja vu can be sensed when reading Ayn Rand's novella “Anthem”. Similarly to “We” and “1984”, its protagonist Equality 7-2521 writes down his thoughts in a secret journal. People don’t have usual names – they have numbers instead. Self-expression is impossible because collectivism is above all. The heroes of all those dystopias become outcasts, while pretending to abide by the rules in order to find the truth.
Kurt Vonnegut reciprocally became a creator of his own parallel dystopian dimension. The work that should be mentioned is “Player Piano”. This novel depicts the negative influence of technology, particularly the dominance of machines. It warns us against blind faith in the advanced technological future, saying that we have to stop improving the AI for the sake of saving the eternal values as well as our lives. Now I must assume that the TV series “Black Mirror” was also affected by it (but as a scrupulous viewer would say, it absorbed all the existing dystopian plots and spilled its both appalling and incredibly mesmerizing versions onto the screen). Vonnegut even didn’t intend to hide his influences, calling it “a cheerful rip-off”. He confessed that Huxley was his great inspiration.
“We” also inspired Ursula Le Guin’s ambiguous utopia “The Dispossessed”. However, it doesn’t have serious coincidences. The only setting is not on Earth but on two planets. Its main themes are also related to the pursuit of freedom and answers about the world the protagonist lives in. It explicitly shows the failure of utopian principles and contrasts modesty with selfishness, abstinence with superfluity.
Apparently, dystopian reflections of different wordsmiths will always have something in common as the quintessential ideas of this genre centre around the loss of personality and traditional human values, oppression of creative freedom, radically altered worldviews and genetically modified human beings, autocratic control of the government and the global surveillant state, the vices of technological progress, the lack of privacy, standardization of society, post-apocalyptic world, and the ensuing rebellion of those who only pretended to play by the rules.
All in all, if we start judging these creations written by truly talented authors, accusing them of deliberate plagiarism, won’t we look like those watchdogs of the delusively seamless societies? The Knights of Literature have the right to embody similar ideas when they manage to do it in such a way that one dystopian novel resembles its predecessor but still remains unique. As a booklover, I can lightheartedly say that the writers of all the mentioned novels cannot be accused of plagiarism. Each book presented here is an integral part of a dystopian planet that paradoxically teaches us to become more humane, social, emphatic, inventive, and original!